black toddler aged girl playing outside wears a dark t-shirt that reads "future leader" in light writing.

ICYMI women make great leaders — measuring up to, or in many cases, exceeding men in key leadership skills including resilience, taking initiative, relationship integrity and honesty1. Yet there are still significant barriers for women, both in terms of getting into a leadership role and being successful once in one. Women’s History Month seems like a good time to dig into this a little bit deeper.

It’s well known that female leaders and politicians face a constant battle when it comes to “likeability.” Kamala Harris is a clear victim of this double standard — frequently attacked for not meeting expectations as to how society thinks a woman, particularly a woman of color, should behave. She has endured intense scrutiny on her facial expressions and the sexist opinion that a woman who is seen as “power hungry” is untrustworthy and unlikeable2.

Unconscious bias that women don’t belong in senior leadership positions means not only are women less likely to be promoted into leadership roles, but those who are promoted face higher levels of scrutiny and reduced inherent trust compared to their male counterparts. Sadly, this problem appears to be getting worse, with trust in women leaders falling. Possible explanations range from a resurgence in institutional misogyny and gender bias to the mere-exposure effect that explains the tendency to “move towards what we’ve traditionally been taught is safe and secure. And when it comes to leadership, that unfortunately still means men being in charge.” The mere-exposure effect can be exacerbated during times of uncertainty or crisis3 (ahem, global pandemic and potential recession). 

Piled on top of this is the notion of The Glass Cliff, which essentially states that women are more likely to be promoted to positions of leadership during crises or tumultuous times (i.e. “what we’re doing isn’t working, let’s try something different”), setting them up for a higher likelihood of failure. 

We just celebrated International Women’s Day so, naturally, I saw many Instagram posts celebrating the important and amazing women in people’s lives. While it is wonderful to see this, the real work is taking the time and effort to look inward and see how you might be contributing to these disadvantages facing women in the workplace. Many well-intentioned people might not realize they are contributing to these problems. After all, the very definition of unconscious (or implicit) bias is “a bias or prejudice that is present but not consciously held or recognized4.” 

In honor of Women’s History Month, take a moment to reflect, put down your defenses, and consider if you may be holding any biases that are contributing to these challenges. Ask yourself if you are doing everything you can to elevate more women into leadership and help support them once there. Awareness of the value and importance of DEI training has grown over the past few years, but it requires constant work and self-reflection to truly make change; unfortunately, the data suggests that women leaders are still facing increased hurdles compared to their male counterparts. We all have work to do to address some of these issues, but it will be worth it because I know the world will be a much better place with more women in charge.

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